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    Crash Course

    When Matthew Sanford was 13 years old, an auto accident killed
    his father and sister and left him paralyzed. This physical and
    spiritual crisis changed him forever. As a paraplegic yoga
    instructor, he pays close attention to the mind-body connection,
    and this perspective has given him a unique insight into the nature
    of trauma. His book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and
    was just published by Rodale. He recently spoke
    with me about his experiences. Matthew’s website address is

    NU: Based on your experiences, how would you
    define trauma?

    MS: Broadly speaking, trauma is a core loss of
    trust in the world, in life-when the world stops making sense to
    you. What’s important to understand about that is that trauma
    happens to everyone; it’s not just the extreme stories you hear
    about. For instance, the loss of childhood innocence is a big
    trauma. At that moment when you lost your childhood innocence, the
    world changed its shape. An essential part of trauma is that the
    world will never be the same again. And that requires you to
    reconfigure your relationship to the world.

    NU: You say that everybody is traumatized, but
    there are examples like yours where there was a precipitating
    traumatic event.

    MS: It’s important to distinguish between a
    traumatic event (and the pain that accompanies it) and the effects
    of trauma, that is, how we respond to trauma. How we carry trauma
    forward throughout our lives can often be the real injury. For
    example, when I was in the car accident and broke my back and had
    all the traumatic injuries, the pain and suffering eventually
    ended. But 27 years later, I still carry trauma in little ways,
    like when I see the answering machine blinking and worry that
    something horrible has happened.

    In my case, we were a fun-loving family of five driving home
    after Thanksgiving, and the unthinkable happened. I went to sleep
    in the backseat of a car; then I woke up to a world where my father
    and sister were dead and I was a paraplegic. It deeply violated my
    sense of trust in the world. I lost trust in the idea that if I
    just did the right thing everything would work out. That loss of
    trust is part of what I’ve had to heal, but this is both the injury
    and the gift of the trauma I experienced-now I truly know that
    anything is possible; the world is wide open.

    NU: But arriving at that openness is a process,

    MS: That’s true. The really negative effect of
    trauma is that it dulls you, it deadens you. You’re no longer in
    pain, but you’re numb, and most people who have been through a lot
    of trauma at first have to be numb and only later can the trauma be
    transformed into possibility, into hope.

    If you’ve had your heart broken in love and you just shut down
    and never let yourself love again-then you’re really injured. The
    initial pain you felt when someone broke off a relationship that
    mattered is difficult, but it’s the denial of life that comes after
    it that is the real injury.

    NU: How do you get past that denial?

    MS: Stories play an important part. The stories
    you tell about the world and the way you think about the world.
    They can be both positive and negative. For example, what happened
    to me is unfair and a really sad thing. I wish it hadn’t happened.
    I wish my father hadn’t died at 47. I wish my sister hadn’t died at
    20. I wish that I was still walking. All that’s true, but if you
    stay with that story of unfairness, the effects of trauma are going
    to stay with you.

    For me, a simultaneous story has taken hold. My life thus far
    has been like a river gaining current. I wouldn’t be the person I
    am if what happened to me hadn’t happened. And in fact I like who I
    am now. I think that I’m a better person than I would have been,
    although I don’t know. My whole life’s work is based on the
    relationship and fluctuation between mind and body, and no amount
    of bookwork would have given me the insight and intuition that were
    forced on me as a 13-year-old.

    NU: Tell us about those insights.

    MS: I was told by a well-intending medical
    model that the mind-body relationship below my point of injury, my
    chest, was basically over. I was paralyzed and I could learn to
    compensate for my paralysis and drag my body through life. What
    I’ve discovered through yoga is that there is a more subtle,
    invisible connection between mind and body that makes me feel
    whole. And this isn’t just psychological stuff; I mean literally. I
    feel fluctuating energy between my legs and my upper body now. You
    squeeze my ankle, I feel a flow of energy up through my spine, like
    squeezing a tube of toothpaste.

    No doubt this level of presence is more subtle. Is this level of
    presence ever going to make me walk again? Lift my leg against
    gravity? Probably not. But it restores a sense of wholeness. If you
    tickle the bottoms of my feet I can’t feel it the way you feel it,
    but there’s another level of connection in the silence of my
    paralysis, and I was trained by the medical model to stop listening
    to it. Yoga has helped me to believe in it.

    NU: I think we’re all trained to stop listening
    to it.

    MS: That’s right. We all have a mind-body
    problem. But age introduces that same silence into the mind-body
    that my paralysis did. One of the things that yoga does is refine
    the quality of the presence we experience within our bodies.

    NU: So what does this presence have to do with

    MS: When trauma is not transformed over time,
    you become less present. You end up being kind of a shell of
    yourself. You don’t take in the world with pleasure, you don’t let
    it flow through you and you don’t let it out. When you lose that
    presence, you lose connection to the world. That’s when trauma
    turns into depression, and the more you become separated from the
    world, the deader you become.

    Trauma registers in both mind and body. For example, I was
    asleep in the car when the accident happened. I have no memory of
    that day. But 12 years after the accident, when I started to do
    yoga, I started to have flashbacks, like posttraumatic syndrome
    flashbacks. My body was having memories. The echoes of the original
    accident were finally coming through. Part of the reason it took so
    long is that my mind was not ready to deal with what my body had
    witnessed. When I was 13, I learned to disassociate from my body to
    avoid pain. As I regained presence through yoga, these stored
    memories began to dissolve.

    NU: These are all personal processes, but is
    there a role for the wider community in healing trauma?

    MS: That’s important. My experience is that
    trauma does not happen to one person, or even one family. It
    happens to a whole community of families. I missed the funeral for
    my father and sister because of my injuries, but there’s something
    incredibly collectively healing about a funeral, to be around all
    the love for a lost one. It’s part of the cleansing and healing.
    When we are in community-with other bodies and hearts-that spurs
    another level of cathartic release.

    There are many types of collective trauma, too. We can never go
    back to before 9/11. The world will be different from now on. And
    of course the world’s always had violence in it, there’s always
    been anger. But our collective trust in the world and the security
    of the nation got shattered. So the question is, what do you do?
    How do you respond? Hitting back after an insult is one way to do
    it, but ultimately we’re not going to transform this trauma by
    trying to violently counteract it. That’s not going to work. I’m
    not saying 9/11 is a good thing, just as I’m not saying that my
    being paralyzed is a good thing, but what trauma does by
    challenging your assumptions is force you to see the world as more
    open. The challenge is to try to see it in a way that makes you
    love the world more. Essentially, to be open and compassionate.

    NU: It’s a paradox-the trauma makes you
    fearful, but it also frees you.

    MS: Part of the wisdom of trauma comes from
    that paradox. Trauma requires me to acknowledge that my life has
    been harsh. Does it hurt? Yes. At the same time, I’m desperately in
    love with living, with the gift of life. Healing trauma calls on us
    to honor the life force and not be destructive with it. Does this
    feeling come from sadness, too? Yes, it’s both. Simultaneously, I
    am heartbroken and desperately in love.

    NU: It takes courage, though, to live with that
    paradox, doesn’t it?

    MS: Well, people sometimes call me courageous
    because of what I’ve gone through. But I think that’s beside the
    point. I wanted to keep living. I wanted to be part of the world.
    Overcoming my disability-that doesn’t even make sense to me. I am
    who I am because of my disability. It is my life, the only life I
    have, and so I’m going to live it. Is that brave? If that’s
    bravery, then it’s in a very large sense. I live my life knowing I
    want to be here.

    NU: Then courageousness is simply being open to
    life, trauma and all?

    MS: That’s what I think. To know that living
    actually entails both life and death. In fact, that’s what defines
    consciousness: the integration and acceptance of both life and
    death. If you’re open to life, obviously you have to be open to the
    silence and sadness in life too. If that’s bravery, then sure, call
    me courageous. But the simple fact is that I’m just living. I just
    love living.

    Published on Jul 1, 2006


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